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What shall I make?

You will have a rich sense by this point of the various critical and practical issues surrounding the choices you might make in selecting your story and how it might unfold.

These have, of course, been fairly abstract until now. We’ve reached the point however, where it is time to consider how all this translates into your short form film.

What’s the story for you?

In an earlier step, Frank Ash spoke about appealing to large audiences and boiled down ‘the story’ to the following set of questions. These were:
What is this story? This one-sentence summary is known as the ‘top line’. What’s going to happen? (or whose story is it?) What’s the big story question? How will this story relate and connect to me and my life?

Using these to develop your story idea will help enormously as you start to transfer your more abstract thoughts into an emerging narrative.

Key Questions

Another really good way of establishing the basics for the narrative of your film is to think about your story in relation to these five key questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?

Once you have a sense of these fundamental coordinates, you’ll be much better prepared to think more broadly about how to develop the story into your digital film.

There are two additional key issues that will be instrumental in translating your story to the screen:

  • Will your film be fact or fiction?
  • What genre will it be?

Neither of these questions will or should involve totally fixed answers, especially at this pre-production stage. Even the most truth-based narrative will use creative techniques that bring the viewer at times closer to reality and at other times further away.

Similarly, some fictional accounts can seem far more realistic or truth telling than their documentary counterparts – you might recall our earlier interpretation of Saving Private Ryan in this regard. There will be much more on dealing with facts and investing, or disinvesting, in realism next week and later on in the course.

Which genre?

In terms of genre, you may well want to draw on more than one. In this way ‘hybridity’ will characterise your film as it does those of so many. Let’s think a little more about genre here and bring in some critical definitions that will sharpen your understanding of the role it plays and the benefits it might bring you.

Tom Ryall provides a useful starting point:

‘Genres may be defined as patterns/forms/styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the filmmaker, and their reading by the audience.’1

This emphasis upon the supervisory role of genre is a useful way of understanding how it serves the making and viewing of films: genre provides a format which eases (your) narration and (viewers’) interpretation - whether as, say, a ‘whodunnit’ film or ‘make-over’ TV show. Genre has also, of course, performed an important industrial role, allowing studios or production companies to re-cycle previous successes for increased commercial gain.

Another key way for understanding genre is as, what Hans Robert Jauss termed, a ‘horizon of expectations’.2 Such expectations, though rooted in the viewer’s familiarity with earlier films, are repeated and changed to create a new example of the genre.

This sense of repetition and change is crucial: it combines the ‘sure-thing’ of the familiar with the appeal of the new. Of course, the degree of real or innovative change will vary enormously and depend on which audience and digital platform the film is targeting and the filmmaker’s creative, commercial or even campaigning intentions.

Think about the questions below and then share your comments.

  • What will your story be?
  • What is its topline?
  • How might genre help you tell this story?
  • How closely will you stick to its format and how might you extend it?
  • How will your story combine the benefits (to you and your audience) of the familiar and those of the new?

1. Tom Ryall ‘Teaching Through Genre’ Screen Education 17 (Winter 1975/76): 28.

2. Hans Robert Jauss, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 79.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web

University of Birmingham